Obama Set to Host Ukraine President

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko is in Washington Thursday for talks with President Barack Obama and to give an address to lawmakers.

Poroshenko, who declared a cease-fire with pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine on September 5, is widely expected to press U.S. officials for additional military assistance beyond the $70 million promised by Washington late last month

The Obama administration has so far stopped short of supplying lethal aid to the Kyiv government, choosing instead to focus on punishing Moscow with wide-ranging economic sanctions for its annexation of Crimea and its support of a separatist rebellion in eastern Ukraine. Moscow’s is denying involvement.

European Union nations, Canada, Australia, Japan and Switzerland have also imposed sanctions against Moscow.

According to estimates, some 3,000 people have died in the fighting in eastern Ukraine and more than a quarter million people have been driven from their homes.

Russia trade sanctions

Also on Thursday, President Vladimir Putin said Western sanctions against Russia violated the principles of the World Trade Organization and the main way to combat them was to develop the domestic market.

At a meeting with senior officials, Putin said Russia had no intention of punishing the West for the sanctions, imposed over Moscow’s role in Ukraine, and said instead they had challenged Russia to strengthen its economy, boost competition and spur lending.

“In taking responsive measures, we first of all think about our own interests regarding the task of development and protecting our producers and markets from unfair competition,” Putin said.

“And our main goal is to use one of Russia’s main competitive advantages – a large domestic market, and to fill it with high-quality goods produced by our nation’s firms,” he added.

The Ukraine crisis has plunged ties between the West and Russia to their lowest since the Cold War, and Putin criticized countries that imposed sanctions for violating the spirit of the WTO, which he said was fair and free economic competition.

Russia joined the WTO in 2012 after 18 years of on-and-off negotiations on the terms of its entry.

Countries enforcing trade sanctions do not have to justify them at the WTO unless they are challenged in a trade dispute. Justifications for restricting trade can range from environmental and health reasons to religious scruples.

But some diplomats fear that wide-ranging sanctions against Russia could only be explained by national security concerns. That would be a legitimate argument, but one that has never been invoked in a WTO dispute and could unravel mutual trust.   

Human rights violations

Meanwhile, the international watchdog Human Rights Watch is calling on the United States to urge Ukraine to stop human rights violations by its forces in the country’s east.

The rights group has accused both sides in the conflict of carrying out indiscriminate acts that have killed and injured civilians and destroyed civilian property.

On Wednesday, Ukraine ordered its armed forces to maintain “full combat readiness” near the Russian border, after new fighting and reports of at least 12 more fatalities further strained an already-shaky cease-fire with pro-Russian separatists.

The casualties were the first reported since Ukraine’s parliament voted Tuesday to grant rebels temporary self-rule in the parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions already under rebel control.

That temporary rule concession and a broad amnesty for many rebel fighters were Ukraine’s strongest public peace overtures since separatists launched their rebellion against Kyiv’s rule five months ago. 

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